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Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Reaching Back In History To Stop Thinking

I read an Op-Ed article in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal, “Our Unconstitutional Census,” by John S. Baker and Elliott Stonecipher, which reaches back to a selective version of the U.S. Constitution to argue illegal aliens should not be counted in the 2010 Census because counting them undermines the equal representation of certain states and their citizens. That is, states with large populations of undocumented workers get apportioned more House members and electoral votes than states without. The current census, as authorized by Congress, counts everybody, legal or illegal.

The authors wrap themselves in the Constitution and even the first 1790 census, which counted all inhabitants, to give legitimacy and authority to their argument: “The census has drifted from its constitutional roots, and the 2010 enumeration will result in a malapportionment of Congress.”

But the article fails to mention one fact that undermines their argument: the first 1790 census counted slaves. African slaves, who did not get the right to vote until 1870, eighty years after the first census, not only were counted as three-fifths of a person (enshrined ingloriously in the Constitution), but Southern states benefited by having more electoral votes and more representation in Congress per voting citizen, to the loud complaints of Northern states, for the selfsame eighty years.

The authors of the Wall Street Journal article also perform a sleight of hand, probably unnoticed by the casual reader, but certainly noticed by this one. They take the word ‘inhabitants’ as the correct mandate of the 1790 census, but instead of mentioning that inhabitants for George Washington and his census included non-voting slaves (he was a Founding Father, wasn’t he?), the Wall Street Journal authors use the Oxford English Dictionary's definition of ‘inhabitant,’ as a bona fide member of the State, entitled to its privileges. Did African slaves have all the privileges of the State in 1790? Could they vote? Of course not.

What is important to note is not only how this article reaches back selectively to its version of the Constitution, but how much harsher the current authors are on non-voting inhabitants than George Washington and other Founding Fathers. Baker and Stonecipher want undocumented workers to count for zero in the 2010 census. At least, and it’s not saying much, George Washington wanted each slave to count for three-fifths of a person in the 1790 census. Perhaps the Founding Fathers had some empathy for the downtrodden, or for the businesses dependent on the downtrodden.

Many would persuasively argue that today’s undocumented workers are analogous to Washington’s and Jefferson’s slaves. Immigrants work menial jobs, often in agriculture, and suffer violence and discrimination, living outside of society and blamed conveniently for all manner of social ills. African slaves were of course forced to come to America and subjected to brutal, systematic violence. But is there any doubt that if slavery were still legal in the United States that we would be capturing our slaves from the poorest, most vulnerable parts of the Third World, including Latin America? What is the same now as before is the need for American industry and society to prosper, often on the backs of the poorest and most vulnerable, and for these workers to be used to the maximum while keeping them as marginalized as possible. We win; they lose. It’s not more complicated than that, but perhaps it’s not the kind of reflection in the mirror Americans want to see.

Reaching back to ambiguous and even contradictory standards, such as the Constitution, often seems to bolster certainty and conviction, until one takes a more careful look. This reaching back is the problem. It is done to stop critical thinking and gain acceptance of a viewpoint that may have hidden biases having little to do with that ‘historic standard’ held so high. Anyone telling you there exists a pure beginning we should return to is asking you to stop thinking and march in lockstep behind them. Readers, think and analyze. That is the true measure of a good citizen.


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